Taking On The Great One
A local adventurer’s battle to climb Denali
by Kathy Reshetiloff
In May a team of eight climbers, including my 45-year-old husband Greg Reshetiloff, set out to summit Denali, Alaska’s Mount McKinley. Over 18 days, exhaustion and altitude sickness forced half of them back down the mountain. Each gain seemed to cost the team another member.
When the phone rang at 4am on May 30 before I knew if Greg had summitted or survived I flashed back to the previous November.
Wet with sweat despite the chill, Greg had returned from a training jog around our Davidsonville neighborhood with Denali on his mind.
“Why do I want to climb that mountain?” he asked, echoing my search to understand. “The simple answer is because it’s there, but that’s a cop-out. Actually I think about it everyday. I’m looking for some real serious adventure. Like when I was on the Knife’s Edge coming back down Mount Katahdin on the Appalachian Trail. It’s a place very few people will ever see. It’s a high I get.”
Climbing The Great One
Denali is the native Athabascan word for the great one or the high one. Denali looms over the Alaskan landscape at 20,320 feet, the highest mountain in North America. Because of its height and northerly location 63 degrees latitude Denali has brutally cold weather. Climbers must prepare themselves for possible 100 mph winds and temperatures as low as -40 degrees Fahrenheit.
Greg was ready for serious adventure but not the folly of solo climbing. He joined a team of hopeful climbers organized by one of four Denali guide services, Alpine Ascents. His companions for the three weeks’ ascent were all strangers to one another, from their mid 40s to 50 with some mountain climbing experience: Mathij (pronounced Ma-tie) from Rotterdam, Tom from New York, Amy from California, Sandra from Florida and Gabrielle from Vancouver. Guides were Sarah and Don Carpenter. Don’s been on Denali four times and summitted once. Since 1997, 51 percent of the average 1,200 climbers make it to the top each year.
“Climbing Denali is a balancing act,” Carpenter told his newly assembled team. “You’re trying to make sure you feel good, move when the weather is good and get enough rest. We have to work with the weather and the conditions that the mountain gives us.”
At Denali National Park, the National Park Service shows an orientation video on proper climbing and camping procedures on the mountain. Climbers pick their mountain cans that, lined with bags, serve as privies. Then they fly to the base of the mountain.
At the Foot of the Mountain
On May 12 after six months of preparation the six climbers spread out their gear for one last inspection inside the airplane hangar near the tiny Alaskan town of Talkeetna. Weather is already changing their plans. The skies overhead are blue, but the passes are clouded in.
In the clear morning, they land on the Kahiltna Glacier. At 7,200 feet, this is Base Camp for the West Buttress route to the summit. They set up camp four bright orange living tents and one cook tent and get to work reviewing crevasse rescue, rope handling, packing gear and sleds.
Roped together, each climber will carry up to 60 pounds of personal gear in a backpack while dragging another 50 pounds of food, fuel, tents and other shared gear on a sled. To reach the summit, they’ll hike 16 miles up to 13,000 feet. The weather is fickle. A balmy day on the glacier can quickly change, with temperatures dropping to -20 to -40 degrees.
The Mountain’s Threats
The West Buttress route of Denali is not a technically difficult climb, but it is fraught with dangers both obvious and not so obvious. Falling into one of the many crevasses that crisscross the glacier is just one. Avalanches and rock falls are common. Weather can deteriorate in minutes into a whiteout, where a climber can’t tell sky from land.
Even in May, you’ve got to keep warm to prevent hypothermia and frostbite. Skin tissue, like water, freezes at 32 degrees. Even above freezing, snow reflects the sun, so you’ve got to protect exposed skin against sunburn and your eyes from snow blindness.
As climbers ascend above 8,000 feet, the lower concentration of oxygen can bring on acute mountain sickness with headaches, dizziness, fatigue, confusion, loss of appetite, vomiting, rapid pulse and shortness of breath.
Severe cases can develop into high-altitude pulmonary edema, where the lungs fill with fluid, or high altitude cerebral edema, where the brain swells. Both can threaten a climber’s life. The treatment for all forms of mountain sickness is to climb down to a lower altitude as quickly and safely as possible. Severe cases go on to the hospital.
7,800 Feet and Then There Are 7
On May 14, Greg and his seven companions pack their gear and sleds to head to Camp 1 at 7,800 feet. Within those 600 feet, they lose their first team member, Gabrielle, to yet another danger exhaustion. Sarah, Greg and Mathij escort her to Base Camp to join a team going home.
From 7,800 feet, the rest of the team hauls a cache of supplies up to 8,500 feet, then climbs back down to Camp 1. It takes them most of the day to get up and back as snow and poor visibility slow the pace. Climbing higher during the day but sleeping at a lower altitude helps their bodies acclimate to the lower oxygen levels.
Two-thirds of the way back up to Camp 1, a whiteout stops Greg and the escort team in their tracks. They must set up a tent and ride out the storm.
Sarah, Don, Greg and Mathij celebrate their survival back at base camp.
On May 15 the team reunites, reaching as high as 13,500 feet over four days on supply ventures and dropping back as low as 8,500 feet. Stymied by bad weather, they sleep at Camp 2 at 11,600 feet.
Each team creates and maintains its own camp. Bricks of ice are sawed and stacked into ice walls to protect the tents from collapsing in the fierce winds. The altitude takes its toll; simple tasks quickly tire them.
Even when sleeping, high-altitude climbers rarely rest deeply. Periodic breathing Cheyne-Stokes respiration becomes more frequent with increasing altitude. Deep breaths followed by very shallow breaths or even a pause in breathing can end with a gasp that wakes the climber. Many climbers awaken, gasping for air, all through the night.
“I didn’t feel the effects of altitude going from Base Camp to Camp 1,” Greg later reflected. “But climbing from Camp 1 to Camp 2, you start to experience it. Climbing is slower and more intense the higher you go. It’s quantitative.”
14,200 Feet and Then There Are 5
Finally the weather breaks, and the seven anxious climbers move to Camp 3 at 14,200 feet. Again they climb up and down over several days, ferrying caches up and descending to sleep. Between Camp 3 and their next cache, they must climb an icy headwall, ascending 900 feet at a 45- to 50-degree angle. So they ditch their snowshoes for ice crampons.
Along the headwall, the Park Service has attached fixed lines onto which each climber must hook. One line is for ascension, another descension
On May 22, the final cache is buried at 16,000 feet. Coming down to Camp 3, Sandra reports headaches; her face seems swollen. Her symptoms worsen. It may be an allergy or acute mountain sickness, but the guides take no chances. She leaves with a descending party.
The next day, bad weather again seems likely to hold the team back. Just as the idea of a rest day settles in, a small weather window opens. Along with many other teams, they head for the fixed lines to High Camp.
But they are all sluggish and mentally unprepared, especially Amy. She stops frequently. About halfway to the fixed lines, she decides to retreat with a team descending to the 14,200 camp.
By the time the remaining team reaches the fixed lines, it’s a traffic jam. Many groups are waiting their turn. The risk of trying to keep warm while waiting is too great; they climb back down to 14,200 feet for the night.
There, Greg tries to persuade Amy to give the climb another night. “A good night’s rest and some food, and you will feel better in the morning,” he told her. “But she had made up her mind. She was done. So she left that afternoon.”
17,200 Feet and Then There Are 4
On May 24, the team gets an early start, around 9am. With a headache, Tom stops frequently. As the team reaches the fixed lines at 15,000 feet, he’s not thinking clearly. Again they turn back, to take Tom down 500 feet to join a descending Alpine Ascent team.
The dwindling team climbs back to 15,000 feet, negotiates the fixed lines, picks up a cache and continues to High Camp at 17,200 feet. It’s 8pm after a long day. But no ice walls from previous camps are standing, so they have to build a wind wall. By 9:30pm, both tents are up.
“At 17,000 feet, I really felt the altitude and thin air,” Greg recalled after the climb. “Everything you do is exhausting. Putting on your gear, drinking water, moving your arms to keep the blood flowing, everything.”
After a bitterly cold and windy night, the last two climbers, Greg and Mathij, meet in the guides’ tent for breakfast. Mathij’s fingertips look like they have been dipped in wax. He has the beginnings of frostbite. He will have to take special care to protect them; refreezing risks amputation. They take a rest day. That night, the weather grows fiercer still. Despite the reinforced ice walls, Greg and Mathij have to hold the sides of the tent to keep it from collapsing.
“The thermometer in the tent read -23 degrees,” Greg reported. “I don’t know how cold it was outside that night, but taking into consideration the windchill factor, it was brutal.”
Then There Were None
Come morning, the weather has broken, and it will be a beautiful summit day.
But Mathij’s fingers look worse. What to do is a critical decision for them all. There must be at least three people on a rope team for safety. Either they all go up or they all go down. The team decides they must go down.
Two days later, the team is off the mountain and back in Talkeetna. Spring is greening the tundra.
“It was a bittersweet decision to come off Denali,” Greg told me in that 4am call. “We were so very close. I thought I was the one with the least experience and would have the hardest time. But as the team got smaller, I still felt strong.
Will Greg try Denali again? Before the trip, he said, “Obviously the summit is the prize, but the summit doesn’t really matter to me. What I care about is the experience.”
Back home, his thinking has changed.
“It gets more disappointing each time I relive it,” he says. “The more I talk about the climb, the more I realize how close I was. Climbing Denali was the toughest thing I‘ve ever done. Every single task was a challenge. In spite of all that or because of it I think I’ll go back. But ultimately, the mountain decides whether or not you summit.”